Benjamin Franklin Papers

From Benjamin Franklin to Edmund Burke, 19 December 1774

To Edmund Burke

ALS: Central Library, Sheffield

The Congress had told the seven active colonial agents to deliver its petition into the King’s hands.3 This instruction raised a delicate question of protocol, for the method of direct presentation, although not entirely unprecedented, was contrary to the normal one of delivering a petition to the American Secretary to be forwarded.4 The meeting that was the subject of this note was called to determine which method to use. Four of the agents, including Burke, declined to have anything to do with the matter, on the ground that they had no instructions from the assemblies they represented. Burke said later that he satisfied Franklin about his decision,5 and no doubt he did. But satisfaction must have been tinged with regret. For the abstentions meant that only the agents of Massachusetts, the province in the deepest disfavor with Whitehall, presented the petition. The common front that the colonies had managed with difficulty to form in Philadelphia had no counterpart among their London agents.

This is the first extant letter between Franklin and Burke, and neither man’s correspondence suggests previous contact between them. In the months ahead, however, despite Burke’s stand on the petition, the Irishman and the American established at least a tenuous relationship, as might have been expected; for no two men in London were more deeply concerned with the crisis. If they wrote each other, no letter has survived; but in a number of conversations their acquaintance ripened.6

Cravenstreet, Monday Dec. 19. 1774


Having just received a Petition from the American Congress to the King, with a Letter directed to the North-American Agents among whom you are named; this is to request you would be pleased to meet the other Agents to-morrow Noon, at Waghorn’s Coffee-house, Westminster,7 in order to consider the said Letter, and agree upon the time and manner of presenting the Petition. I am, Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant

B Franklin

Edmund Burke Esqr

Addressed: Edmund Burke Esqr / Fludyer Street8

Endorsed: Mr. Franklin Der. 19 1774  request to attend a meeting of American Agents.

[Note numbering follows the Franklin Papers source.]

3Burke, Charles Garth, Thomas Life, and Paul Wentworth, along with BF, William Bollan, and Arthur Lee; see the letter from the Congress above, Oct. 26.

4Dennys DeBerdt, when agent for Massachusetts, once presented a petition directly, as instructed, but pointed out that the method was irregular. The Secretary was the usual channel, according to a North Carolina agent, and it was the one that BF had used in the past. Albert Matthews, ed., “Letters of Dennys de Berdt, 1757–1770,” Colonial Soc. of Mass. Pubs., XIII (1910–11), 378; William L. Saunders, ed., The Colonial Records of North Carolina (10 vols., Raleigh, N.C., 1886–90), VIII, 55; above, XIX, 400–1; XX, 372.

5Burke took the same position the following summer in regard to the second Continental Congress; he explained that in both bodies the New York delegates were not appointed by the assembly, to which alone he was responsible. Thomas W. Copeland et al., eds., The Correspondence of Edmund Burke (9 vols., Chicago and Cambridge, 1958–70), III, 197; see also p. 81. For Life’s and Wentworth’s abstention see BF to Thomson below, Feb. 5.

6See the headnote on BF to Burke below, May 15, 1775.

7Near the Abbey: Bryant Lillywhite, London Coffee Houses ... (London, [1963]), pp. 629–30. If the meeting was held on the 20th it must have reconvened the next day; see BF to the Mollesons below, Dec. 21.

8BF was behind the times: Burke had moved from Fludyer St. almost two years before. Copeland, op. cit., II, 301 n.

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